When Vicksburg fell to Union troops on July 4, 1863, the Confederacy lost its last chance to control the Mississippi River.
Control of the Mississippi River during the American Civil War was an economic and psychological factor for both the North and the South. For many years, the river had served as a vital waterway for midwestern farmers shipping their goods to the eastern states by way of the Gulf of Mexico. The farmers, along with politicians and merchants, did not like the idea of the river being closed because of Confederate artillery looming along the banks where the “Father of Waters” flowed through the Confederacy.
For the Confederacy, control of the lower Mississippi River was vital to the union of its states. The portion of Louisiana west of the river plus Texas and Arkansas formed the Transmississippi which held manpower and materiel that the rest of the southern military machine needed.
Vicksburg was “the key,” as U. S. President Abraham Lincoln termed it, to the Union gaining control of the river. Lincoln looked at a map of the Mississippi River and saw that its hairpin turn in front of Vicksburg, which sat high on bluffs above the river, made boats traveling in both directions vulnerable to artillery fire from the Confederate batteries on the shore line and on the high bluffs.
The effort of United States troops to capture Vicksburg took over a year, from the spring of 1862 to the summer of 1863, and it involved thousands of soldiers and caused much bloodshed.
The Vicksburg campaign can best be understood when divided into four phases. First came the spring 1862 upriver attack by Union gunboats. Then came General U. S. Grant’s fall campaign, which involved the invasion of north Mississippi and an attempt to flank the Confederates with General William T. Sherman’s Mississippi River expedition to a point just north of Vicksburg called Chickasaw Bayou. Grant then launched his spring 1863 campaign of diversions that eventually allowed him to get his army across the river south of Vicksburg. The final phase included Grant’s hard-hitting overland campaign into central Mississippi and his siege operations at Vicksburg.
In the spring of 1862 during the initial Union attempt to take Vicksburg, women in Vicksburg got their first taste of war and often found themselves in harm’s way. While men fought the campaign, most Vicksburg women left to stay with acquaintances in safer areas, or to camp out in Warren County hills beyond the range of Union guns. The initial Federal attempt proved more inconvenient than dangerous for most Vicksburg women. When the Union navy gave up and departed, life returned to normal.
Life was hard for African Americans. While many were freed by the Union army, they were pressed into service in the summer of 1862 to build canals to bypass the Mississippi River. The work was hot, many became sick, and the canals were unsuccessful. Eventually, formerly enslaved men joined the Union army as part of the United States Colored Troops.
But tough times lay ahead. During the night of April 30-May 1, 1863, General Grant crossed his army from Louisiana into Mississippi, and citizens in Vicksburg were on the verge of encountering Union troops.
Grant won the Battle of Port Gibson on May 1 and moved quickly inland, marching northeast toward Edwards and the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, the vital supply line that connected Vicksburg with Jackson and points east. Meanwhile, from May 12 to May 17, Union forces won a battle at Raymond, captured Jackson, and defeated General John C. Pemberton's main army at Champion Hill and the Big Black River. Pemberton retreated into Vicksburg and Grant followed.
So war on a large scale came to Vicksburg again, with the Union army arched around the city from north to east to south and the Union navy on the river. As Pemberton’s dispirited army came into Vicksburg, many women, children, and other noncombatants tried to leave, but with Confederate troops retreating into Vicksburg, and most of the roads out of town leading east into Grant’s army, many had to return.
Grant’s army tried twice to overwhelm Pemberton’s army, and, having failed, settled in for a siege that ultimately lasted 47 days. The siege had various impacts on the lives of people caught in the city. Black refugees filled "vacant houses, churches, sheds, and caves" crowded together, most of them sick and without food or medicine.
Upper-class White women often went from comfortable circumstances to deprivation and humiliation, lower-class White females went from not having much to having even less, and enslaved women went from a structured existence to uncertainty.
Whatever their station, the women who stayed in their hometown rather than escaping before Grant arrived struggled to survive. The women had to look out for themselves and try to keep their lives going while the war whirled around them. Their story is one of courage, sacrifice, and persistence. Their surviving letters and diaries tell stories of both physical and mental terror. Their story is one of courage, sacrifice, and persistence.
Diarist Emma Balfour of Vicksburg worried about trapped citizens like herself and her physician husband. Between Grant’s army and Union gunboats she wondered, “What is to become of all the living things in this place when the boats commend shelling--God only knows--shut up as in a trap--no ingress or egress--and thousands of women and children,” who had earlier sought safety in Vicksburg. Food supplies would not last long. Confederate commanders urged citizens to occupy caves built the previous summer and to dig more.
Emma Balfour wrote of the early fighting: “I was up in my room sewing and praying in my heart . . . when Nancy [her servant girl] rushed up, actually pale . . . .” Nancy warned of the falling shells, which sent people “rushing into caves.”
“Just as we got in, several . . . [shells] exploded
. . . just over our heads, and at the same time two riders were killed in the valley. . . . As all this rushed over me and the sense of suffocation from being underground, the certainty that there was no way of escape, that we were hemmed in, caged:--for one moment my heart seemed to stand still. Nearly all the families in town spent the night in their caves.”
For civilians trapped in the city, the siege proved to be a time of hourly uncertainty. Between brief lulls came terror and extreme mental stress. Caves provided the only security. The soil around Vicksburg was mostly easy to dig, yet firm enough so that caves could be dug into the sides of the hills without great fear of cave-ins. People carefully selected cave sites in order to minimize risks of being hit with artillery shells. Both White citizens and their enslaved laborers worked with shovels, though most of the work fell on the latter.
The caves could be simple one-room abodes or multi-room suites. They contained parlors and bedrooms that were furnished with items from home; most cooking was done outside the main cave entrance. Sometimes there were connecting openings from one family cave to another for escape purposes in case an artillery shell caused the earth to crumble.
Cave dweller Mary Loughborough penned vivid scenes of her experiences:
“Our policy in building had been to face directly away from the river. All caves were prepared, as near as possible, in this manner. As the fragments of shells continued with the same impetus after the explosion, in but one direction, onward, they were not likely to reach us, fronting in this manner with their course. On one occasion, I was reading in safety, I imagined, when the unmistakable whirring of Parrott shells told us that the battery we so much feared had opened from the entrenchments. I ran to the entrance to call the servants in; and immediately after they entered, a shell struck the earth a few feet from the entrance, burying itself without exploding. I ran to the little dressing room, and could hear them striking around us on all sides. One fell near the cave entrance, and a servant boy grabbed it and threw it outside; it never exploded. And so the weary days went on . . . when we could not tell in what terrible form death might come to us before the sun went down.”
While some women coped with caves, others braved the streets to help out at hospitals. One such volunteer nurse earned the admiration of a pastor, who noted her dedication: “Week after week, with untiring diligence would she nurse & feed this young man. Now her cheek becomes pale from constant labor & her strength evidently begins to fail.”
Women, like all others in besieged Vicksburg, civilian and soldier alike, suffered also from a lack of food and good drinking water. By the time Pemberton surrendered his army, there were still ample supplies in town, but rations had been cut severely in an effort to make food last longer. Women, as did Confederate soldiers in the trenches, lost weight, became dehydrated, and suffered from severe malnutrition.
When the 47-day siege ended on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg women shed tears, but many remained defiant. Margaret Lord, wife of a local minister who served in a Mississippi regiment, refused to be disheartened. She turned down the offer of a hated Yankee to help find supplies for her family.
Many Confederate soldiers who survived the war eventually came to terms with the bitterness of the harsh four years, and they attended joint reunions with former foes. The men who had fought each other shared a common legacy of experiences, a legacy that healed psychological scars wrought by the horrors of battle.
For women in Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South, forgiving attitudes did not come that easy. They worked to make sure that succeeding generations of southerners did not forget what they had suffered. Though both armies brought war and deprivation to their worlds, these women blamed the North for the war and honored Confederate soldiers. They were the driving force behind the post-war Lost Cause movement that celebrated positive memories of the Confederacy.
Michael B. Ballard, Ph.D., is archivist in Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library. He is the author of five books, including A Long Shadow: Jefferson Davis and the Final Days of the Confederacy, and Pemberton: A Biography.
Emma Balfour Diary. Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson.
Ballard, Michael B. Civil War Mississippi: A Guide. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, The Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Hoeling, A.H., et. al., eds. Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege, May 18-July 4, 1863. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.
[Mary Ann Loughborough], My Cave Life in Vicksburg with Letters of Trial and Travel, By a Lady. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1864.
Poppenheim, Mary B., et. al. The History of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, 3 volumes in 2. Raleigh, North Carolina: Edward and Broughten Co., volume 1-2.
Urquhart, Kenneth Trist, ed. Vicksburg: Southern City Under Siege, William Lovelace Foster's Letter Describing the Defense and Surrender of the Confederate Fortress on the Mississippi. New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1987.
Walker, Peter F. Vicksburg: A People at War. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.